My project over the past month is a book of my drawings for tattoos that people commissioned. Digging through old portfolios, I realized this material should be made public. Dating from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, they range from quick initial sketches to finished colored work, mostly done on vellum tracing paper. Some of the tattoos done from these studies were published in earlier Hardy Marks books, some were never executed in the skin or finished, and most have never been seen before. There are about 90 works, and this will be the first volume in a series. We aim to have the book available by March 2016.
Reviewing these, I thought about my primary goal from when I started tattooing in 1967—to develop the medium in new ways by concentrating on interpreting what the customer wanted, not primarily working off wall flash. It took about seven years to fully realize this, after living and working in Japan, operating street shops, etc. A big challenge to transforming the medium was to expand people’s perceptions of what a tattoo could be. Focusing on being the illustrator of the wearer’s concepts absolutely broadened and challenged my skills.
Lately I’ve thought about this in relation to singers interpreting songs. And from there, thinking about Bob Dylan, whose music has had a constant impact on me since the early ‘60s. He started out replicating and transforming classic folk songs, fused with a poetic and rock sensibility—and quickly evolved his unique range of lyrics/stories/visions that extended the existing traditions in ways no one had ever experienced. As with others breaking new ground in various fields, a lot of what he did was met with hostility, incomprehension, and confusion. People expected his work to repeat and adhere to past successes…but the secret, mysterious geometry of what inspires and propels us forward requires continuous recalibration and exploration of what might lie beyond. Those lucky enough to experience total absorption of established forms—and recognize their interrelationships—can take those components and make new hybrids. This can happen with music, visual forms, whatever.
This has been on my mind a lot since 1987, when I began refocusing on my personal art and not concentrating on images that had to be tattooed. This intensified when I finally put down the machines about eight years ago. So since most of my time and interest these days has been reviewing and exploring art history, I’ve gone off in directions that I always wanted to explore more deeply. Most have little or nothing to do with the treatments traditionally expressed, or possible, in tattooing. On the other hand, the current astounding growth of talent and sophistication in the field has opened things up in ways I never could imagine.
With this in mind, the abstract or unclassifiable directions that intrigue, preoccupy and challenge me might be puzzling to those who have appreciated my earlier work. But to borrow Tony Polito’s phrase, you have to do what the hand calls for. Drawing, at its best, couples intuition and observation with learned motions. Most of the works in Drawings for Tattoos were done “to order.” But the subject matter is just an excuse to expand into realms that elude easy definition. Like the 1965 Rolling Stones recording, “It’s the singer, not the song.”
Dec. 19, 2015